Last Year at Marienbad (1961)

*. Last Year at Marienbad is a puzzle film, of the kind that does not allow for a solution. Its meaning can be argued over, but never finally determined. For some people that is its weakness, for others its strength.
*. This obscurity was intentional. Screenwriter Alain Robbe-Grillet thought it “a pure construction, an object without reference to anything outside itself.” That’s of course impossible for any image or use of language, but it does help explain the film’s sense of presenting a time and place hermetically sealed off from rest of the world. It’s only when the camera settles on these figures that they come briefly to life. When the camera dollies or pans away we can be sure they all go right back to their version of the mannequin challenge.

*. Obscurity, however, doesn’t mean that interpretation can run free. Resnais didn’t think of the film as a total enigma, only one whose reading would be unique to each viewer. But I think there are still limits. On the Criterion DVD Ginette Vincendeau presents us with the possibility that it may be a post-nuclear war movie, or that “A” (Delphine Seyrig) takes over the narrative at the end. I find the first suggestion to be crazy and the second not based on any evidence. I prefer Roger Ebert’s reading of “X” (Giogrio Albertazzi) as the author/director (or auteur). “Isn’t this how writers work? Creating characters out of thin air and then ordering them around?” Yes, I can see this. But then Ebert has to enter caveats and we know we can’t take this line of thinking too far.
*. It’s a movie that has always divided opinion. Where some find it difficult others find it empty. The Medved brothers, for example, included it in their volume of The Fifty Worst Films of All Time. I wouldn’t go that far, perhaps because I don’t find it as frustrating so much as simply odd. Once you realize and accept its difference then you won’t get so angry.
*. For example, the most interesting part of the documentary on the making of the film  that’s included in the Criterion DVD (Unraveling the Enigma: The Making of Marienbad) has the script girl Sylvette Baudrot showing a chart she had made breaking the film down into separate time threads, with some left “indeterminate.” Of course, once you allow for the existence of an “indeterminate” time or narrative thread then the whole scheme falls apart. How many times does “A” die? Or does she die? Drawing up such a chart strikes me as a pointless exercise, though I’m sure lots of people have given it a try.
*. Nor do I think that looking for sources or later signs of influence helps very much. With regard to the first, it’s often said that Adolfo Bioy Casares’s novel The Invention of Morel provided some of the inspiration, but I don’t see that as being of much assistance. Apparently Casares based the character of Faustine on Louise Brooks, and “A” in Marienbad (the Faustine figure) had the same model. But I’m not sure what any of that means. Meanwhile, would “X” be the fugitive narrator from Casares’s novel? Are these characters only holograms? I suppose it’s possible, but then a lot of things are possible.

*. Looking to movies it might be thought of as having influenced, I find the link to horror films most suggestive: from Carnival of Souls with its haunting organ music and protagonist who doesn’t know she’s dead, through Daughters of Darkness (Delphine Seyrig returning to a classy hotel, an “edifice of a bygone era,” as a decadent vampire), to Kubrick’s The Shining. Pauline Kael, who was not a fan, thought the characters (“or rather figures”) to be “a tony variant of the undead of vampire movies” (and “M”‘s likeness to a vampire was noted by many other critics as well). But in going down this road I know I’m just pursuing my own subjective reading, being someone who spends a lot of time watching horror films. I’m sure anyone could find similar connections to other genres, like romance.
*. So if everything is so indeterminate, what can we say about Last Year at Marienbad? I guess the thing that stands out the most is the look. By this I mean the excessively stilted, formal arrangement of the pieces and the players. The sense of refined stasis that reinforces the notion of a closed world from which there is no escape or release. Even emotion seems out of place. When “M” shoots “A,” does he do it in a fit of passion? It doesn’t look that way to me. Even the “rape” scene (if that was what it is) seems almost ridiculously out of place.
*. As Mark Polizzotti says in this Criterion essay, “though Marienbad is generally considered a love story, it is perhaps the most rigidly codified seduction ever filmed, with nary a hair out of place. X pursues A with B-movie persistence, but his ardor seems more focused on winning her over than on satisfying his passion: one can barely imagine them kissing, let alone making love.” So how can we imagine a rape and a murder?
*. Nor do I have the sense of passion being repressed or sublimated in some way. Instead, emotion seems to have drained from Marienbad, or wherever they are, along with all the colour. “X”‘s pursuit of “A” is just a routine, like playing all those games against “M” that he doesn’t seem to mind losing. But then he appears to be the only one who knows that he’s been through all this before.
*. My own take on it, for what it may be worth, is less that the characters are caught in an endless loop (as in The Invention of Morel) as they inhabit slightly different threads of time in alternate universes. At times these threads seem very close indeed, as when we get the series of shots of “A” in her death pose, which are all slightly different. But in other threads she hasn’t been murdered at all. Then, at other points, the threads seem to cross. Perhaps the “A” who “X” is talking to at some particular moment doesn’t remember seeing him at Marienbad last year because she really wasn’t there. Then, later, he meets up with an “A” who has.

*. At one point, following this reading, we actually get to see a number of threads simultaneously, a rare moment of temporal conjunction. This is in the shot of the three images of “A” as though being reflected in a pair of mirrors. Except these are not reflections, as “A” makes different movements in each. It’s like three different Marienbads cross over at once, at which point they will begin to diverge again.

*. It’s a magic moment, but among the few I can point to. I won’t deny that I don’t love this movie. It’s the kind of film that has to be watched over and over, but one does so at least partially out of a sense of duty. It lures us with a meaning that I don’t think it has, but I’ll still grant it’s a work of art that teases us out of thought. I don’t think it’s an empty experience, but I do find it to be a modest one and probably not worth that much thinking about.

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